The last three weeks have been particularly intriguing times for Islam in America: The debate over the so-called ground-zero mosque (called the Cordoba House, it’s actually a two-minute walk from the ground zero of the former Word Trade Center which was destroyed in the September 11 attacks and isn’t exactly a mosque; it’s a community center that includes a 2000-capacity “prayer room,” an inter-faith center, a swimming pool, etc) reached a feverish point—and boiled over.
Conservative Republican politicians have made the vilest Islamophobic utterances that I’ve ever heard in the political and social mainstream here. All on account of the Cordoba House, which is, in fact, modeled after a Young Men Christian Association (YMCA) or Jewish community center and which is named after the city of Cordoba in southern Spain that is noted not only as a center of Muslim culture but as a symbol of interfaith harmony. (Interestingly, the developers of the Cordoba House have been friends of U.S. governments— from George W. Bush’s administration to Obama’s. Feisal Abdul Rauf, the main brain behind the center, is currently in the Middle East on an “outreach tour” on behalf of the American government and has said recently that his goal is to “Americanize Islam.”).
Well, according to opinion polls made public these past few weeks, about 70 percent of Americans oppose the building of the “ground-zero mosque” in New York. It also emerged that a fringe, obscure, hate-mongering church in Gainesville, Florida, with the ironic name of Dove World Outreach Center (“dove” symbolizes peace and “outreach” connotes friendship and tolerance!) announced plans to host an “International Burn a Quran Day” on September 11.
Meanwhile, President Obama, during a Ramadan dinner with American Muslims in the White House, famously declared support for the right, if not the propriety, of American Muslims to build the “ground-zero mosque.” During the same period, an opinion poll showed that more Americans (about 20 percent, up from 11 percent last year) than ever before think Obama is (secretly) a Muslim. In fact, Franklin Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, America’s most famous evangelist, pointedly declared that Obama “was born Muslim.” As I will show later, this claim is inaccurate.
A number of my readers from Nigeria wrote to request me to give some perspective and order to this chaos of occurrences. And that’s what I set out to do in this piece. First, it is not true, as one of my readers claimed, that “American Christians want to burn copies of the Qur’an.” It’s only one marginal, wacky, inconsequential, hate-filled, hitherto unknown church in a small American town that announced plans to burn copies of the Qur’an. And this has been met with comprehensive condemnation by Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish leaders all over America. In fact, the National Association of Evangelicals, somewhat the American equivalent of our Christian Association of Nigeria, has condemned it. Plus, the town of Gainesville has denied the church a “burn permit.”
That said, it is undeniable that there has been a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry especially in American conservative circles these past few weeks. And the politically-motivated hateful rhetoric of Republican leaders is partly to blame for this. In November, all the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives will be up for grabs. Republicans who currently suffer a numerical disadvantage in the U.S. Congress have decided to cash in on the “ground-zero mosque” controversy to win votes.
And their plan seems to be working so far. According to an August 24 Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, “Forty-six percent of registered U.S. voters would likely vote for Republican candidates in November and 45 pct for Democrats.” But the Republicans needn’t scapegoat American Muslims to win elections. Traditionally, the party that occupies the White House often suffers massive losses in midterm Congressional elections. Midway into a new administration, American voters historically get impatient and fed up with the president and express their resentment by voting out the ruling party in midterm elections.
But the strategy of the Republicans is probably also informed by the need to rhetorically construct Obama as so thoroughly un-American, nay anti-America, as to make him unelectable for a second term. And what better way to do this in this season of Islamophobia than to claim that he is a “Muslim”? On August 20, for instance, the Republican Party’s director of New Media, Todd Herman, tweeted that President Obama is probably part of the 20 percent of Americans who think he is a Muslim.
But Obama is in reality probably personally non-religious. His dad, although born a Muslim, was a “confirmed atheist.” So was his mom. So it isn’t true that he was “born Muslim.” His paternal grandfather was originally a Christian who converted to Islam. And his maternal grandparents who brought him up were unapologetically nonreligious. Obama himself started going to church only after he met his wife, Michelle.
Although Article VI, Section 3 of the U. S. Constitution states that, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States,” Americans expect some public display of religiosity from their presidents. But Obama has been fiercely private about his religious life. That has given room for his detractors to claim that he is a Muslim or, worse, anti-Christian.
And that’s why some Obama supporters think it was impolitic for him to have given in to the Republican bait by saying American Muslims had the right to build the “ground-zero mosque.”
That sentiment may not be entirely groundless, but Obama was also protecting the provisions of the U.S. Constitution that he swore under oath to defend. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….”
The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted “Congress” to mean “any government,” whether state or federal. The substance of the First Amendment with regard to religion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1994, is that “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.”
Interestingly, even the most vociferous opponents of the “ground-zero mosque” concede that American Muslims have the right to build the center. They only want the location to be changed to some place else as a show of “sensitivity” to the feelings of the victims of the September 11 attacks. However, although the 9/11 attackers were Muslims, they didn’t carry out the attacks on behalf of Islam and Muslims. And many Muslims also died during the attacks. In any case, there are already many mosques, such as Masjid Manhattan, that are close to “ground zero.”
My own take, however, is that the developers of the Cordoba House should change its location if only to take the wind out of the sails of bigots and save innocent Muslims in America from needless hostility. Interestingly, the 70 percent Americans who oppose the “ground-zero mosque” on account of its proximity to the former World Trade Center don’t mind a mosque located two blocks away from their homes.
So it’s really more about politics and emotions than it is about religion as such.